In August 1984, The Smiths released their single ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’. It was a minor chart hit, and a solid enough track, though hardly in the realm of their earlier indie favourite ‘This Charming Man’. Tucked away on its B-side, however, was a song that would change the world. ‘How Soon Is Now?’ charged into view with a Johnny Marr riff that sounded like the opening palpitations of an earthquake, matched with a characteristically mopey lyric by his Smiths offsider, Morrissey.
Eventually, ‘How Soon Is Now?’ got its own A-side release, and went on to become the theme song of late-’90s TV hit Charmed. Marr’s friend and fellow Manchester icon, Oasis guitarist Noel Gallagher, once joked that the song’s guitar intro was so distinctive, even Marr had no idea how he’d done it. Speaking on a break from tour dates in Canada, Marr chuckles at the suggestion.
“I do know how I made it, because it took me a long time and I remember every minute of it,” he laughs. “[But] it’s nice to be given credit by people you think are pretty good yourself. Over the years it’s become even more important to me to not really analyse what I do too much – I don’t particularly like it when I see other musicians doing it.”
In the years after The Smiths disbanded in 1987, Marr worked as a session player and sideman with the who’s who of rock’n’roll, from The Pretenders to The The, Neil Finn and The Cribs, alongside his collaboration with New Order’s Bernard Sumner in Electronic. Throw in Marr’s guitar contributions on modern indie classics like Modest Mouse’s ‘Dashboard’ and the Hans Zimmer film scores to Inception and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and his presence in contemporary music is near inescapable. His signature guitar sound, it’s fair to say, has inspired a generation – though Marr is a little more humble about it all.
“When I was starting out as a kid, I used to research and read everything about guitar culture that I possibly could,” he says. “Back then it was a very different time to what it is now, and so I did come across theories about people like Chet Atkins having his own style, or Scotty Moore, or George Harrison, or Hendrix, or any of those people I’ve mentioned being very, very identifiable. George Harrison has a very distinct slide guitar sound; Tom Verlaine has a very distinctive lead sound. So I always knew the importance of being identifiable, and I feel very pleased to have a sound that people know is me.”
In 2000, Marr worked briefly on a solo project with a new band, The Healers, but it wasn’t until this decade that indie rock’s busiest collaborator at last followed his old bandmate Morrissey into the solo world full-time. Marr’s 2013 debut, The Messenger, sounded every bit as Marr as anything and everything he’d played on before, with the added presence of his own vocals on top. Marr has been touring his solo material around the world for nearly two years now, and says playing the role of the frontman has come surprisingly easily to him.
“I took to it pretty quickly, to be honest. I understand why people might make a big deal of it, but it just felt pretty natural. Because I’m writing the lyrics and singing the songs on the album, it’s easy for me to stand behind the songs and project the intention that’s in the songs, and that intention’s really just adrenaline and an upbeat kind of high-energy… I don’t want to use the term ‘rock’n’roll’, because people confuse it with an ideology which I think is somewhat redundant these days, but certainly as far as the singing and the lyrics go, rock’n’roll is a good enough term for it, for what I do, and I’m really proud of that.”
Marr’s latest release is Playland, an 11-track collection he’ll be touring to Australia in the New Year. It’ll be Marr’s second solo visit Down Under, and he hopes to make the same connection with an audience of his own here as he’s done in the UK and US. “In Australia [in early 2014] we were playing very small places that were a lot of fun, and I was happy to be back in the country and show my band around a little bit, but they were a little too small, truth be told. I like those places, but hopefully people come out to these bigger venues [next year]. We just really like to play – I love plugging in with three or four other people and playing these new songs. The band have our own ambition to be one of the best live bands around and put on a decent show. I think it’s alright to have ambitions of any sort – especially when you’ve been around for a while, to still have ambitions is a healthy thing, so I don’t mean that in some cocky or bravado kind of way … I just like getting out and seeing people’s faces.”
Although Marr is keeping himself focused these days on solo work, that doesn’t mean he’s stepping away from his collaborative habits. In 2015, he’ll appear on the second solo record by his old mate Gallagher. “[Noel] started his solo career around about the same time as I started mine, and we both have an understanding of what’s going on in this part of our lives, and what it is to go out and form your own band playing shows under your own steam,” says Marr. The only part he’s uncertain about is being dragged along to football stadiums to watch Gallagher’s beloved Manchester City. “You have to watch it going to a City game with Noel, or anywhere, cause you could end up on the pitch, or if you go to his show with him you could end up on the stage, or if you go out to dinner with him you could end up in Bono’s limousine – you never know what’s going to happen with Noel,” he laughs.
While those football supporters can get pretty fanatic about their teams – and Marr would know – there are perhaps no music fans more devoted than those who obsess over The Smiths. Manchester is dotted with sites that have been turned into shrines for Marr’s old band, inspired by lyrics or band photos that reference particular places around town. Beatlemania might be dead, but Smithsdom sure isn’t – though Marr suggests that perhaps the hardcore fans have thrown themselves at the feet of his elusive former singer rather than scream themselves to tears at his own shows. It’s probably for the best.
“There’s a certain kind of attitude from The Smiths that seems to encourage devotional kind of behaviour, for want of a better word,” says Marr. “I only know about my fans who’ve been with me now for 25, 30 years or however long it is since the band split, and I’ve always got along great with those people. I like them and they know that I like them, and I’m really happy with the relationship that I’ve had over the 30 years through The The and Electronic. The people who follow me like The Smiths, but also they know the world is a big enough place so they can like all kinds of music. I’m happy that I’ve got those guys.”